Fringe Psychology of the 1960s In Breakthrough/ Momentus Training
It is helpful to know the roots, or origin, of an organization or system of thought in order to get a clearer picture of its nature and methods. This is especially true of the Breakthrough/ Momentus training, which has roots in fringe psychology of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Crazy Therapies, a book by Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich, describes some of the psychological methods which came out of those turbulent years. Below we describe some of the techniques as outlined in the chapter "Cry, Laugh, Attack, Scream-- Cathart your Brains Out." After each section, a Momentus graduate describes parts of the training which seem to be much like the psychological techniques the book describes (these parts are printed in italics).
GET A QUICK FIX THROUGH MARATHON TRAININGS
Singer writes, "In the 1960s and 1970s the world witnessed a kind of free-for all approach to psychotherapy. As life became faster paced, so did the quest for a quick and radical cure for all problems, including psychological and emotional ones. Groups... suddenly turned into 'marathon' encounter sessions that went on for hours, days, or entire weekends. Therapy... took on a confrontational and piercing quality" (Pp. 113-114).
Breakthrough/ Momentus (M/B) certainly fits this description as "marathon," lasting four long, intense days, from Thursday through Sunday. Each day is entirely scheduled, without free times, and some meals are taken with other participants or crew members. When participants are released at night, they are assigned homework to be done before sessions resume in the morning.
As for the "marathon" encounter sessions, Momentus is nothing if not that. Its schedul;e, intensity and methods make it a pea in a pod with other Large Group Awareness Trainings (LGATs). Its use of powerful psychological and social influence techniques were designed to bring psychological distress to trainees--I believe deliberately--to force them into changing their belief systems. If someone got hurt in the process, well, it was "their own choice" for taking the training. That was the kind of thinking I heard throughout (and after) Momentus--no compassion whatsoever for anyone who got hurt by the training for any reason. If they were hurt, they "brought it on themselves" for signing up in the first place.
No thought was given to the fact that people signed up on glowing recommendations from "spiritual leaders" they'd trusted and whom they'd never suspect of leading them into deception or danger of any kind--and not a word about anyone getting hurt. Unless, of course, they were already seeing a therapist and were, by implication, not "mentally sound" individuals in the first place. Or those who "didn't love Jesus" enough to want to change into "his image," which was one of the come-ons to entice people to take the training.
"LETTING IT OUT" - THE PHILOSOPHY WHICH UNDERLIES THE METHODS
Letting it out, or venting emotions, "is supposed to relieve inner miseries," according to pop psychologists. There are two aspects of this, catharsis and abreaction. As Singer explains, "Catharsis is a purifying or figurative cleansing of the emotions. Abreaction is the release or expression of supposedly repressed ideas or emotions that are believed to be causing conflict in a person." (Pp. 108-109) Letting it out was thought to be cathartic in and of itself.
The descriptions of the terms catharsis and abreaction match exactly what goes on in Momentus. The various exercises in Momentus serve to bring trainees to such an emotionally worked-up state that the result is a strong, but artificially induced, emotional catharsis--especially the confessing sins exercise and the pillow-beating exercise. But it's all artificial--no more valid than getting worked up over a movie or TV show in which a main or beloved character dies. In the end, it's much less than it is claimed to be.
Many areas in the training are designed to artificially create a catharsis.
For example, one time everyone was put into circles (separate ones for men and women) as the trainer read a long list of sins. The trainer said, "raise your hand if you're guilty of one of these sins." We were instructed to dwell on our past sins there, in the dark, with eyes closed, while crew members walked around in case anyone broke down. The sounds of wailing and crying that resulted--especially so artificially induced following two days of emotional manipulation--created a very unnerving cacaphony. That was designed to induce an emotional catharsis afterward, as it did. This is a further example of the Momentus brand of abreaction, where these "unconfessed sins" are supposedly causing inner conflict and where confessing them in Momentus releases their hold on the trainee.
But no differentiation is made in Momentus between sins one has already confessed to God and been forgiven for and unconfessed sins, so the exercise is pointless unless one is guilty of any of these sins the trainer lists and hasn't confessed. (Although it is questionable whether raising one's hand indicates true confession and repentance.) The entire exercise, to me, reminds me more of the Scientologist's concept of releasing "engrams" in order to become "clear" than it does any true form of Christian confession.
There was another exercise in which people were lifted in the air by others in our last-day groups to induce the sensation of "floating," while emotionally charged songs were played. This also artificially evoked feelings of guilt or worthlessness, followed by additional manipulation to create another catharsis. I felt all these exercises manipulated our emotions.
Aberaction is essential, too, to both of these exercises. The idea behind the pillow beating exercise is that trainees are holding in repressed anger or hatred against their parents for (often imagined) wrongs or hurts that their parents committed against them. The beating on pillows and crying "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy" or "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy," repeatedly while doing so is apparently supposed to purge trainees of those repressed feelings of hurt or anger.
Momentus' beating pillow exercise is the prime example of "letting it out" or "venting,". But people were also encouraged to vent against others in the training. Examples of this from my training include couples who got up and tore each other apart, trainees attacking those who let their "buddies" leave the training, and those pressuring the ones who didn't complete their homework when the trainer threatened to "stop the training" if it wasn't complete.
Confrontation and attack therapy was one form of ventilation. Singer writes,
"Attack therapy is an outgrowth of ventilation therapy. Here the patient becomes the subject of verbal abuse, denunciation, and humiliation. This assault may come either from the therapist in individual session, or from peers in a group context.... As one critic put it, 'Tact is "out" and brutal frankness is "in." Any phony, defensive or evasive behavior... is fair game for... critique and verbal attack."
Sitting on the hot seat and verbal confrontation emerged from "human potential" centers, and were used extensively in LGATs:
"Another variant of the confrontation therapies appeared in the commercially sold large group awareness training programs such as Mind Dynamics... and Lifespring..... Marketed to individuals, organizations, and business and industry as experiential education, they typically use powerful psychological and social influence techniques, not always bringing about the advertised claims of success and profit to the buyer, and sometimes bringing psychological distress to the clients" (Pp. 113-114).
Notice that Lifespring and Mind Dynamics are singled out as users of confrontation therapies. Daniel Tocchini, founder of M/B, was a trainer for Lifespring for about eight years. He also singles out the founder of Lifespring, John P. Hanley, as the biggest influence on him:
"The impact of some individuals has been so profound in our lives that they stand in a class by themselves. John P. Hanley is one such individual. Thank you John for your stand for transformation and passion, and for your stalwart guidance through the years." (Killing the Victim, p. 11)
Newspapers have reported that Lifespring has been sued about 40 times for causing psychological distress of some sort, including at least six allegations that this form of confrontation brought death to participants. (Breakthrough /Moimentus requires participants to sign a "Hold Harmless" form which releases them from liability if trainees should die or suffer other harm as a result of the training; the form is based on one Lifespring uses.) Most suits were settled out of court. Hanley was once on staff of Mind Dynamics, which has been out of business for many years.
Attack therapy was rife in Momentus--most often the trainers attacking the trainees who stood up to speak or react to something the trainers said. But trainees were also encouraged by example to use it against others in the training--and those who picked up on it the quickest were often the ones that were later singled out as being most deserving or who'd best learned the techniques of "self-government" (such as those who were voted into the lifeboat in that exercise, mainly because they were the ones who'd stood up the most and attacked others or engaged in angry exchanges with the trainers).
The attack therapy described in that book is exactly what goes on in Momentus when the trainer picks out people to condemn for minor violations, such as not getting to our seats within one minute after the trainer or crewman responsible for the clock calls "Time." According to a woman I know who served on the crew, the trainer asks the sponsors and crew for the names of people taking the training who may be "trouble" or especially rebellious so that the trainer can single them out early to attack and break down. This seems somewhat similar to boot camp in the military, as the drill sargeant singles out the potential troublemakers to break down first. I recall the trainer doing this to one fellow--getting into a shouting and insult match with him, telling him he was "full of ---" and keeping at him until he wore him down. Later, in the "foot washing" ritual at the end of the training, the trainer picked out this guy to wash his feet, supposedly humbling himself before him, and the guy--by now thoroughly emotionally wrung out--broke out in tears. It was surreal.
Brutal frankness was definitely in during the entire training--even artificially produced, such as when the trainers forced everyone who couldn't remember the name of every other trainee (in a room of almost 60!) to go around and tell them that we "didn't care enough to remember your name." Ethics, kindness, gentleness--all were thrown out in favor of confrontation, the better to force you to determine what made up your own personal beliefs (but if they didn't conform to what the trainers thought they should, they turned out to be self-defeating).
The hot seat technique was used throughout, whenever we were required to sit in groups and let others tell us what they thought of us (even though they'd not had time to validly get to know us) or in twosomes and respond to emotionally charged personal questions such as "What was your greatest betrayal?"
The trainers put people on the "hot seat" and attacked people when they made statements. One woman stood up and said that she thought she was okay, and then the trainer berated her until she sat down almost crying.
Crazy Therapies' descriptions of Kevin in the "hot seat" are very reminiscent of how the trainers treated several individuals in Momentus--as well as how Momentus grads and sponsors treated people after the training. Momentus seems to suggest that such actions by grads have nothing to do with Momentus, but in truth, they're merely following the example that the trainers set in the training itself. Grads apparently figure, "if it's good inside the training, why not outside as well?" Nothing in the training really deters its enthusiasts from practicing it on others outside the training--as long as they limit it to other Momentus grads. Having taken the training apparently makes people perpetual targets in the eyes of the fanatics among the grads, especially if they perceive you doing anything that they don't like, whether it conforms to scripture or not. What I saw on many occasions--and experienced myself--was much like a barracuda attack. As soon as any Momentus grads perceived that one of them had "drawn blood," all of them jump into the fray, attacking the victim--and the word is valid in this context-- as a group in a kind of "feeding frenzy." It's nothing different from what goes on in the training--except that the trainers aren't there afterward so that they can say they didn't prompt it, even though others are just following their example.
The trainers also indirectly lead other trainees to get into the act, such as the times when someone's "buddy" left the training, and they had to convince the other trainees (at least those who participated in the attacks) why they should be allowed to remain in the training and not be thrown out. The trainer left the room when someone failed to complete homework, claiming
he was ending the training unless the others could "persuade" those who hadn't finished their homework to do so. (As I found out later, the trainer wouldn't have ended the training, but used this ruse to induce this peer-control.) I recall that my wife hadn't written a full page, as required, because she couldn't think of how to answer it, and she was brought to tears by the other trainees' hurtful statements.
There was also another painful-to-watch display when trainers urged people to "open up" and tell someone else how they'd hurt that person. One couple got up and started in on each other over the husband persuading the wife to take an emotionally painful action before they were married -- with the wife bearing her raw pain and anger at him out in front of everyone. It was really horrible to have to watch. (That couple divorced after the training--so much for it helping relationships.) Another couple was induced to get up and go at each other over imagined lust for others--which started because the husband thought a trainer had a lustful look. When the couple was worked up, a trainer and another crew member stood up and asked the husband to "please forgive" them for their own adultery--inducing yet another emotional catharsis. (One thing I've seen in Momentus grads who've embraced the training-- is a false, "easy" repentance, where just saying to someone "Please forgive me," whether sincere or not, gets the confessor off the hook and puts the onus on the other person. Even if the requestor shows no signs of actual repentance, if the other person doesn't forgive him, he or she then becomes the "bad person" and the Momentus grad no longer considers himself to have any responsibility in the matter. It was called "giving the ball" to the other person, and a trainer illustrated it in the training by actually throwing a ball to trainees and telling them that they now carried the responsibility for whatever exchange they were engaged in.)
Scream therapy is one of many methods which are supposed to cause catharsis, and abreaction, the release of repressed ideas or emotions believed to cause conflict in a person (p. 109):
"The last quarter century has seen the emergence of all sorts of 'let it all out' therapies... teaching people to scream and beat pillows.... encouraging clients to confront each other in groups...." (P. 113).
"One variant of let-it-all-out therapy became all the rage in the 1970s. It was known as scream therapy....a method that would let the customer feel, experience, and let out all those feelings of rage." Arthur Janov claimed to have discovered a version known as Primal Therapy. "During therapy Janov instructed Danny to call out 'Mommy! Daddy!.'... He became noticeably upset. Suddenly he was writhing on the floor .... his breathing was rapid... 'Mommy! Daddy! Came out of his moth almost involuntarily in loud screeches" (Pp. 120-121).
Janov added that the person then "reexperiences an early-life painful events in the form of a vividly recalled memory." Afterward, the person is "slightly euphoric, very lucid, and profoundly calm." (P. 122)
I've long considered Momentus to be of the primal scream therapy school. The screaming the book describes is simply a more intense form of the pillow exercise in Momentus. The difference is only in degree. (I never saw any of the trainees go into near-convulsions--but as we were all supposed to keep our eyes closed during the exercise, I can't really say that no one didn't.) I found out later that the team keeps "barf bags" on hand for trainees who get so upset that they vomit. The screaming was harrowing and very unnerving, however, even while trying to participate in it. The "tapering off" period afterward also sounds a lot like what happened with the pillow exercise. After we were told to stop screaming and beating the pillows, we were to lie there on our backs and calm down and get quiet and peaceful. I recall lying there in the dark, wondering what would come next. As the music started again, I could hear people getting up and dancing and acting joyous--undoubtedly as the result of the emotional catharsis the exercise was designed to invoke. I didn't get up for quite a while, as I'd recognized how contrived the whole thing was and had no reason to feel "joyful" over it. I'd definitely describe a lot of the trainees as seeming "euphoric" afterward. They were dancing around, hugging other trainees, and engaging in an artificially induced closeness. It was like what some people experience after surviving a life-threatening or otherwise dangerous situation--except, again, this was one that was artificially produced and not real. (Except for the real dangers of emotional and psychological trauma that the training produces, which a round of dancing and hugging isn't going to alleviate.)
The pillow exercise, too, is pointless if one has already forgiven his or her parents for any wrongs, imagined or otherwise. Participants were told to beat their pillows, almost as though beating their parents in effigy while screaming out their names. Although my parents divorced when I was a young child and left me in the care of other relatives, I'd long ago forgiven my parents and given up any hurt their actions may have caused me as a child. So all I could do during the pillow exercise was just go along and pretend to be beating my parents as I beat the pillow. My wife had the same problem, because her parents were wonderful Christians and she had no repressed hurt or anger at them to exhibit. It was pointless, but the peer pressure was still strong enough to make us go along with the exercise, especially because it was likely that if we didn't, we'd get singled out for the "hot-chair" treatment whenever someone brought attention to themselves by not doing as the trainer wanted.
EVALUATING THE THERAPIES
Singer's book notes that most forms of marathon, confrontation, attack and scream therapies do little good, and in some cases do harm. The notion that expressing feelings in itself is good is not backed up by research. The book quotes Dr. Gerald Amada, "It sometimes poses a risk for people to express intense feelings if they don't have a content for those feelings, if they don't have a sense of perspective.... Catharsis is not in and of itself curative" (P. 109).
When taken too far, venting can cause behavioral, personal or emotional difficulties (P. 112). The book offers case studies of people who experienced troublesome results from different forms of these therapies.
Articles in psychology literature have noted that acting out on hostile feelings actually tends to increase hostility. Encouraging people to express anger lowers their restraint, which leads to more aggression. And "Encouraging mild, plaid and rational people to ' let go' and ventilate their rage only makes them feel worse if they do" (P. 129).
When people experience these therapies, they tend to "regress, become dependent, have their self-esteem and sense of self attacked and diminished...." (P. 130). They may have reservations about the practices. However, they accept them because they become persuaded by the leader's status and power role, so they accept the leader's explanations and assurances (p. 130). Social psychology also shows that "once a person makes a commitment in front of others about a position or belief, it is more likely that the person will cling to that position." (P. 130).
The chapter concludes,
"In general, if your therapist is telling you that you have to get worse before you get better, is tearing you apart rather than building you up, is letting group members insult and ridicule you, is insisting that you must go deeper and deeper and deeper to feel the feeling, or is doing anything that smacks of old-fashioned ventilation theories, get out as fast as you can and look for a supportive therapist who will listen and respond with human decency." (P. 131).
I believe that it definitely was a "risk for people to express" such intense feelings in Momentus without any "context" other than the artificial one created in the training. No sense of perspective was really possible, because any violation of the "ground rules" for the training, no matter how slight, was enough to get a trainee verbally slammed by the trainer. That usually ended up in some kind of emotional release--anger at the trainer (the trainer seemed to relish seeing this and twisting it against the trainee). Some participants apparently felt depression and anguish after being made a target and mocked by the trainer, as he did to several people who made the mistake of standing up and sharing (or, in the case of one older lady, just sitting there and smiling).
The book mentions promotional flyers which sound much like some of the Momentus promotional materials--they were all about the positives and benefits to be derived from the training (and without any specifics of what went on in it to give anyone any real information). The entire Momentus experience was very much as this chapter of Singer's book describes, in overall spirit if not in every detail.
Dr. John Juedes and William Barton, 2002